Cover: The Emerging Risk of Virtual Societal Warfare

The Emerging Risk of Virtual Societal Warfare

Social Manipulation in a Changing Information Environment

Published Oct 9, 2019

by Michael J. Mazarr, Ryan Bauer, Abigail Casey, Sarah Heintz, Luke J. Matthews


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Research Questions

  1. What are the characteristics of virtual societal warfare, and what risks does it present to advanced societies?
  2. What is the social and technological context in which cyberaggression, such as hostile social manipulation and virtual societal warfare, will be employed?
  3. What might the world look like 10–15 years after the advent of virtual societal warfare and related techniques of cyberaggression?

The evolution of advanced information environments is rapidly creating a new category of possible cyberaggression that involves efforts to manipulate or disrupt the information foundations of the effective functioning of economic and social systems. RAND researchers are calling this growing threat virtual societal warfare in an analysis of its characteristics and implications for the future.

To understand the risk of virtual societal warfare, the authors surveyed evidence in a range of categories to sketch out some initial contours of how these techniques might evolve in the future. They grounded the assessment in (1) detailed research on trends in the changing character of the information environment in the United States and other advanced democracies; (2) the insights of social science research on attitudes and beliefs; and (3) developments in relevant emerging technologies that bear on the practices of hostile social manipulation and its more elaborate and dangerous cousin, virtual societal warfare. The authors then provide three scenarios for how social manipulation could affect advanced societies over the next decade.

The analysis suggests an initial set of characteristics that can help define the emerging challenge of virtual societal warfare, including that national security will increasingly rely on a resilient information environment and a strong social topography, and that conflict will increasingly be waged between and among networks. Although more research is urgently required, the authors conclude by pointing to several initial avenues of response to enhance democratic resilience in the face of this growing risk, including by building forms of inoculation and resilience against the worst forms of information-based social manipulation and by better understanding the workings and vulnerabilities of emerging technologies.

Key Findings

  • National security will increasingly rely on a resilient information environment and, even more fundamentally, a strong social topography. These elements likely require classic forms of information security as well as strong mediating institutions and a population continuously inoculated against the techniques of social manipulation.
  • The barrier between public and private endeavors and responsibilities is blurring; national security will rely on the cooperation of private actors as much as public investments. The technologies and techniques of this form of conflict are increasingly available to a wide range of actors. Private power in this realm matches and, in some cases, exceeds public power.
  • Conflict will increasingly be waged between and among networks. State actors are likely to develop such networks to avoid attribution and strengthen their virtual societal warfare capabilities against retaliation. It will be much more difficult to understand, maintain an accurate portrait of, and hit back against a shadowy global network.


  • Invest in research and understanding to account for the limits of our awareness of the true character of the evolving information environment and its likely directions, key causal dynamics in that evolution, how populations react to various forms of social manipulation, and what the most effective answers might be.
  • Begin building forms of inoculation and resilience against the worst forms of information-based social manipulation.
  • Take seriously the leading role played by social media today and the precedent-setting character of many of the information control debates playing out in that realm.
  • Make investments designed to erect new, broadly trusted informational mediating institutions that can help Americans make sense of events.
  • Begin working toward international norms constraining the use of virtual societal warfare.
  • Better understand the workings and vulnerabilities of emerging technologies, especially artificial intelligence–driven information channels, virtual and augmented reality, and algorithmic decisionmaking.

The research was sponsored by the Office of Net Assessment, Office of the Secretary of Defense, and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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